Autoimmune Diseases… and Nutrition


In a previous blog post, I described what autoimmune diseases are and how they develop, including the necessity of a trigger and a leaky gut.

What this means is that your genes are not your destiny, as it relates to acquiring an autoimmune disease. (Or lots of other conditions, for that matter, but this post is focused on autoimmunity so I won’t digress.)

Your environment and lifestyle are determining factors in whether or not those genetic variations linked to autoimmunity get turned on and your immune system gets triggered to start attacking your tissues.

In light of that, here are my top 5 suggestions for what you can do to support your immune system without sending it over the edge:

1) Go gluten-free and dairy-free.

Remember that I said one of the potential mechanisms for autoimmunity is molecular mimicry? This is because research shows that some food proteins resemble proteins in our own tissues. Gluten and dairy proteins (like casein) happen to be two of them, as demonstrated in this very elementary drawing.

Molecular mimicryFor those of us with autoimmune disease(s), gluten is both the trigger and the cause of the leaky gut (a real double whammy!).

Many people (including myself) experience a decrease in autoimmune antibodies within 6 months of removing gluten and dairy from their diets.

Some people experience the change by removing gluten only. So start there if you don’t think you can remove both at the same time.

2) Remove any foods to which you are sensitive.

As described in this post, a food sensitivity is when a food causes your immune system to react with anything other than IgE antibodies.

Although identifying food sensitivities can be difficult, it’s important for anyone with an autoimmune disease to make the effort. By identifying and removing foods that irritate the immune system, you give it the space it needs to focus on and more appropriately respond to other things, like infections and cuts.

Gluten and dairy are the most common food sensitivities for those with an autoimmune disease, which means they may also cause GI symptoms in addition to their role in molecular mimicry. Other common food sensitivites are listed in order of approximate prevalence:

  • Eggs
  • Corn
  • Soy
  • Other grains like barley, amaranth, oats, spelt and rice
  • Legumes like beans (especially soy) and lentils)
  • Potato and other nightshade vegetables like tomatoes, eggplant and bell peppers
  • Citrus fruits
  • Beef, pork or chicken
  • Nuts
  • Grasses like sorghum and teff
  • Starches like tapioca
  • Seeds like buckwheat, millet and sesame
  • Chocolate (even dark chocolate… it’s related to the cacao, not the dairy)
  • Coffee
  • Absolutely any other food (because we are all unique!)

If you aren’t sure how to approach this, an elimination diet can help identify which foods are triggering your immune system. You might find an elimination diet helpful if:

  • You have low levels of autoimmune antibodies but no symptoms yet (you can measure the antibodies before and after and see the impact).
  • You have autoimmune antibodies and symptoms (you can measure your symptoms before and after, as well as the level of antibodies).
  • You suspect that one or more foods impact how you feel (physically, mentally and/or emotionally), but aren’t sure which ones.

3) Take care of your gut.

Since a leaky gut is a necessary component of triggering the immune system into autoimmunity, it is essential that you heal your gut and prevent it from becoming leaky again.

(By the way, if you have an autoimmune disease, you can presume that you have a leaky gut and need to take steps to fix it. However, if you want proof, there are some expensive and not-usually-covered-by-insurance tests that a functional doctor can do to determine if you have a leaky gut.)

4) Get your vitamin D levels up to an optimal state.

An optimal state is defined as a vitamin D (25-hydroxy) blood level of 45+ ng/mL and many experts say 75+ is ideal.

(Note: this is higher than the normal reference range of 30 – 100 ng/mL for most labs. The lab ranges are determined based on all results done by that lab. The “normal” or reference range is set by throwing out a percentage of the the highest and lowest values. The problem with this approach is, if most people in a population are deficient [as is the case with vitamin D], their numbers are still part of the mathematical determination of “normal.”)

An optimal level of vitamin D has been show to prevent the onset and/or exacerbation of several autoimmune diseases including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. As well, vitamin D has been repeatedly proven to be a necessary part of a healthy immune response (i.e., not too much and not too little).

5) Eat an anti-inflammatory diet.

By definition, inflammation is a response by the immune system. So eating an anti-inflammatory diet is like singing lullabies to the animal inside you who is programmed to protect you. Yes, you want your immune system to respond to true invaders like viruses, but you don’t want it responding to food… or your own tissues! You want that wolf sleeping when there’s not a real threat around.

At a high level, you want to:

  • Eat a ton of vegetables and fruits. Like 9 – 11 servings per day of mostly veggies.
  • Significantly reduce your intake of sugar, alcohol and caffeine.
  • Avoid all food colorings, chemicals and trans fats.
  • Stay well-hydrated.
  • Get plenty of good quality protein.
  • Consume plenty of minerals like calcium, potassium and magnesium.
  • Consider consuming foods that are known to reduce inflammation like turmeric, omega-3s (from fish, nuts and flaxseeds), ginger, citrus fruits (for the vitamin C), nuts and seeds (for the vitamin E), and onions and peppers (for the quercetin).

(For more details on inflammation and an anti-inflammatory diet, check out this blog post.)

The results of my application of this information…

For myself, I have had psoriasis for as long as I can remember. This confirms I am genetically susceptible to autoimmunity. As I learned more about autoimmunity and it’s connection to food (especially gluten), 6 months ago I asked my doctor to test my blood for the antibodies associated with celiac disease (CD), Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and gluten, just to see.

I tested positive on all of them. The levels were low and I had no overt symptoms (although I also tested deficient for vitamin B12 and insufficient in folate and vitamin D, so perhaps I am not absorbing nutrients as well as I thought?). Even without any symptoms currently, the science says I would eventually develop CD and hypothyroidism if I don’t do something about it.

That’s why I did the elimination diet, a gut healing protocol, and have made some other tweaks to my diet and supplements over the last 6 months. I had my doctor test my blood levels again last week and my numbers have improved. My TPO antibodies went from 62 in December to 0.7. As well, my TSH went from 2.57 to 1.27. Unfortunately, my T4 and T3 are still a little lower than optimal, but so is my ferritin (stored iron) so this could be the cause (since iron is needed to make the hormones) and I will be working to correct that… especially now that my vitamin D, B12 and folate are all at optimal levels (woohoo!).


If you aren’t sure how to move forward with my recommendations and want to see the positive impact they can have on your immune system, contact me and I will help you through the process.


Image: Cute sleeping wolf by Tambako The Jaguar on Flikr

— Allen S. Six Core Centers of Health: Imbalances of Chronic Disease. Recorded webinar. Watched on May 6, 2015.
— American Association for Clinical Chemistry. Reference range defined. In Understanding Your Tests > Reference Ranges and What They Mean. Accessed June 30, 2015.
— Antico A, Tampoia M, Tozzoli R, Bizzaro N. Can supplementation with vitamin D reduce the risk or modify the course of autoimmune diseases? A systematic review of the literature. Autoimmun Rev. 2012; 12(2): 127-136.
— Battault S, Whiting SJ, Peltier SL, Sadrin S, Gerber G, Maixent JM. Vitamin D metabolism, functions and needs: from science to health claims. Eur J Nutr. 2013; 52(2): 429-441.
— Karlsen AE, Dyrberg T. Molecular mimicry between non-self, modified self and self in autoimmunity. Seminars in Immunology. 1998; 10(1): 25-34.

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    • I do, and I can see how that can be confusing! Not everyone is sensitive to citrus fruits. For people who are, they should certainly seek alternate sources of vitamin C (of which there are many including bell peppers and strawberries). For people who are not sensitive to citrus fruits, they can be a great source of vitamin C without a lot of free sugar, if one sticks to grapefruit, lemons and limes.

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